October 26th, 2010

Anniversary Party

This is a placeholder -- a lengthy one, albeit -- for what I am not yet able to find the words for. Or maybe it's just a way of marking a place in danger of being erased, even if I will never be able to fill in the blank. Memories need a stage. It doesn't matter whether the production shuts down before a single performance.

Last week, the syllabus for one of my courses had me commencing a unit on cinema. A few years back, when I was teaching a more advanced version of this class at another institution, I would start things off by watching the "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette from one of two films, Far From Heaven or The Deep End, both domestic melodramas centered on a mother.

As my still-exhausted brain tried to formulate a lesson plan, I had the inspiration to revisit this practice, making adjustments for the students' lack of experience with interpretation. But I couldn't find either film, for some reason, and found myself frantically searching through our DVD collection to see whether any other films came packaged with "Anatomy of a Scene."

And then I found one, The Anniversary Party. I was too rushed to think about the perverse serendipity of this discovery. The film is one of my favorite ensemble-cast narratives. But it was also one of the pictures I remember best from my first year Tucson, one which, along with The Deep End, Lantana, Sexy Beast and Dancer in the Dark, confirmed for me that my love of moviegoing would not go unrequited in the desert.

More importantly, these films gave my wife and I something to discuss aside from parenting and the profound sense of dispossession we were dealing with in our new home. They were precious reminders of the life we had lived together before our daughter was born. And they also served as bulwarks against the pernicious energy coming from my new workplace, where we had both gotten off on the wrong foot.

At the time, the darkness of these films was something I kept at a distance, a quality that enhanced the aesthetic pleasure they provided for me. If I identified with the characters they featured, it was for structural more than personal reasons. Or at least that's what I believed.

As it turned out, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and their prolonged aftermath ended up consigning these films to a peculiar place in my memories, one that has consistently felt much more remote to me than, say, the early 1990s. Between the lack of sleep from being parents to a small child, the stress of the move and new jobs, and the massive historical break that 9/11 signaled, I had the sense that my initial experience of these films was nearly as inaccessible as my memories of very early childhood, that time before the world made any sense to me, when I was two or so.

I mention this because it helps to explain the visceral force that battered away at me when I screened "Anatomy of a Scene" for my class last week. Mind you, the principal reason for that response is much easier to communicate. The plot of The Anniversary Party concerns a gathering being held in honor of a couple, brilliantly played by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who are once again living together after being separated for some time. The anniversary they are celebrating, in other words, is for a bond that had once seemed irreparably damaged.

Seeing as how I was gearing up for my own anniversary last week, the commemoration of a marriage as troubled as theirs, I identified with their plight in ways that went far deeper than an appreciation for good storytelling. As different as their middling Hollywood lives are from the ones that my wife and I have led here in Tucson, there was a quality to their suffering, a sense that a few too many bridges had been burned to make true intimacy possible again, that reminded me very much of my own situation.

In retrospect, I recognize that the closest connection between that fictional marriage and my own is less its state of disrepair than its highly public nature. Or was, at any rate. That sense of remoteness I have vis-a-vis the first couple years of the decade is bound up with the fact that it immediately preceded the time when my wife and I started blogging about our lives.

From the fall of 2003 until a few years ago, both she and I posted regularly about our relationship. I commemorated it with photographs and entries that now strike me as astonishingly free of my normal reserve. And she chronicled our ups and downs in considerable detail, to the point where a friend of mine once told me that he could always tell when I was going to get lucky by reading her.

Then it all changed. At first, the shift in coverage was motivated by a concerted effort to separate her blog from my own. She writes more openly and controversially about grown-up topics than I do. And, unlike her, I write under my own name. Given the fact that our daughter had begun to read, making it harder to get to my wife's blog seemed like a good idea to both of us.

It still does, I suppose. But the separation has come to take on a markedly different aspect. As I'll write about in one of my follow-up entries, I have gone from being a regular reference in her blog to having such a minimal presence that internet acquaintances have asked me where I live these days.

That's partially my fault. Out of respect for my wife and our initial decision to separate our online identities I have gone out of my way to be vague about many things. Not to mention that I tend towards indirectness of expression under the best of circumstances. Still, I do make reference to her when the narrative requires it. But she excises me even from those family activities in which I am deeply engaged.

Things have gotten a lot stranger over the past few months, as she has blogged regularly about her efforts to get my ailing parents moved out to Tucson. Studying those entries, it would be very easy to conclude that I wasn't involved in the process at all. Sometimes I feel like a ghost when I read them, as if I were keeping tabs on the people I left behind after my death.

That said, the extremity of my erasure can make our marriage seem more public than casual references might have. It's the proverbial elephant in the room for those people who still follow both of us online. From the family outings we both recount to the photographs of our daughter, our pets and of her -- I rarely get photographed anymore unless I do it myself -- that both of us post to our blogs, anyone who cares to remark the discrepancy between our online identities and our actual day-to-day lives can do so with ease.

I suppose I should be thankful that the desire to do so has waned over the past few years. Her blogging presence remains as powerful as ever, while mine has shrunken dramatically. People still follow her the way they would a fictional character in a soap opera. I can count on one hand the number of people who would notice if I abandoned Live Journal for a month.

Nonetheless, I can't shake the sense that people still read me through her lens. I have a good number of friends on Facebook who used to use Live Journal regularly and followed us both. When I encounter them online or around town, the way they interact with me is still powerfully shaped by the years in which my wife and I were a public couple.

That's why the sequence from The Anniversary Party focused on in "Anatomy of a Scene" hit so close to home. As the guests at the recently reunited couple's party take turns toasting them, we see how thoroughly their words and deeds are shaped by back stories. Indeed, the only character who seems capable of gesturing towards the future without first making a detour through the past is Gwyneth Paltrow's ditzy starlet, who doesn't know the couple well enough to reference their history together.

I'm not really getting very far with this, although I've written a lot more than I intended to produce. Rather than consigning the entry to the queue of those waiting to be completed, though, I'm going to force myself to post it. I have abandoned far too many attempts to discuss my relationship woes over the past few years, whether out of deference to the portrayal -- or lack thereof -- that she has constructed or concern for my own reputation. The longer I hold my confused thoughts inside, though, the more they undermine my capacity to make meaningful headway on anything that really matters to me.

The Anniversary Party charts a descent from the casual fronting of your typical middle-aged gathering into the madness of a night where propriety and security have been tossed to the wind. It's depressing and not a little scary. But there's also something cathartic about that trajectory, something I may need in order to transform myself from a person immersed in emotional toxicity to one who has purged his poisons. Like the characters in the film who take the Ecstasy that Gwyneth Paltrow's character has brought to the party as a "gift of love," I need to open myself to risk if I am going to have any hope of surviving my current predicament with my spirit intact.